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How to protect your digital assets with an estate plan

by Legacy Plan
May 26, 2023

As our lives become more intertwined with the digital world, protecting digital assets has become an increasingly important aspect of estate planning. A digital estate plan is a component of an individual’s overall estate plan that focuses specifically on their digital assets. It outlines what should happen to these assets upon their death or incapacitation.

The importance of having digital assets included in estate planning has grown vastly because of our wide-ranging reliance on the internet for communication, socializing, employment, news and entertainment, shopping, finance, education, health care and travel. Digital technology has become integral to almost every aspect of modern life.

Digital assets include information and data that exist in a digital form and the rights or licenses associated with them. Digital assets can have both sentimental and monetary value. Just like physical assets, these digital assets can be lost if they aren’t properly managed after your death or if you become incapacitated. Also, privacy laws and terms of service agreements can make it difficult for your loved ones to access your digital assets if you haven’t provided the necessary permissions in advance. A digital estate plan can help avoid these difficulties.

Most of us have a significant digital footprint. There are several types of digital assets that should be considered in our personal planning and estate management. These assets typically include banking, investment, email, social media and gaming accounts; digital photos and videos; websites and blogs; digital wallets; online businesses; domains; subscriptions and memberships; files stored in the cloud; and virtual goods.

What are some common digital assets?

Email accounts

Personal emails can contain private messages, important documents and photos. It’s important to decide what should happen to your email accounts when you die or become incapacitated. Depending on the provider’s terms of service, you might choose to leave instructions for a personal representative or trustee to close the account, download and save important correspondence, or transfer any valuable data to a secure location.

Social media accounts

These include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. Social media accounts can hold sentimental value and memories and can also be used for business purposes. Each platform has its own policies. For example, Facebook allows you to designate a “legacy contact” who can manage your account after you pass away, or you can request that your account be permanently deleted after your death. Instagram also provides similar options. It’s important to include information about these accounts (like the platform and associated email address) in a secure location as part of your digital estate plan. However, due to privacy concerns and terms of service agreements, you should never include passwords in your will or estate planning documents. Instead, you should follow each platform’s established protocol for managing accounts after death.

Online banking and investment accounts

These are part of the financial estate but also need digital access. Digital interfaces provide access to and control over financial resources or investments. These can include checking and savings accounts, credit card accounts, mortgages, loans, retirement accounts, stock trading accounts, mutual funds and other types of financial assets. Online banking allows users to conduct financial transactions over the internet via a bank’s secure website or app. Similarly, online investment accounts allow users to manage their investments, buy and sell securities and track the performance of their portfolios.

Digital photos and videos

This includes all photos and videos stored on a computer, smartphone or cloud service such as Google Photos or iCloud. Digital photos and videos become assets due to their sentimental, historical or financial value. You might want certain photos or videos to be shared with particular individuals, preserved for future generations or even deleted. Due to their potential volume and the variety of locations where they might be stored, estate planning for digital photos and videos can present a particular challenge. Therefore, providing clear instructions and keeping your digital media well-organized can greatly assist your executor and loved ones.

Websites and blogs

If you run a personal blog or website, this will need to be managed or shut down. They represent a person’s or organization’s online presence and can contain valuable content, intellectual property and even generate income. A website is a collection of interlinked web pages that are typically accessible from the same base URL and reside on the same server. They can be created for various purposes, such as providing information, selling products or services, entertainment, social networking or personal expression. A blog is a specific type of website that is usually maintained by an individual or a business with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events or other materials such as graphics or video. Blogs can serve as a diary, a platform for sharing opinions or information on specific subjects or a tool for marketing and promotion.

Digital wallets

A digital wallet is a system that securely stores users’ payment information and passwords for numerous websites and applications. With this information, the digital wallet can automate the process of filling in forms and payment details when a user is making a purchase online. Digital wallets can store a variety of information including credit card numbers, bank account information, personal identification numbers (PINs) and other relevant details. Examples of digital wallets include PayPal, Venmo, Google Wallet, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. In the context of digital assets, digital wallets also include storage systems for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum and others. Cryptocurrency wallets may be physical devices, apps or online services that store the digital keys needed to access cryptocurrencies and perform transactions. Potentially you could lose everything without estate planning for cryptocurrency.

Online businesses

This includes any businesses run primarily online, such as e-commerce stores or freelance work. This can include a wide range of businesses, such as e-commerce stores, online services, digital publishing, online coaching or education platforms, affiliate marketing businesses, digital product businesses and many more. An online business could be entirely based on the internet, or it could be a digital extension of a physical business, such as a brick-and-mortar store that also sells products online.

Domains

Any domain names you own. A domain name, in terms of digital assets, is the address or URL that individuals type into their web browsers to visit a website. It’s a unique string of characters that provides a distinctive identity in the vast landscape of the internet. Domain names are crucial for any entity with an online presence as they not only allow people to access their websites but also play a significant role in branding and marketing. Owning a domain name gives you the right to direct internet traffic to your website. From a digital assets perspective, domain names can have real value. They can be bought and sold – and in some cases, they may be worth substantial sums of money. The most expensive domain names have sold for millions of dollars.

Online subscriptions and memberships

They refer to ongoing, usually paid agreements between a user and a digital service provider. They grant the user access to specific digital services or content. Examples of these might include streaming services like Netflix or Spotify, online newspapers or magazines, software-as-a-service (SaaS) like Adobe Creative Cloud or Microsoft 365, online gaming services, memberships to professional organizations or websites and more.

Files stored in the cloud

This refers to data that is saved on remote servers rather than on a personal computer or local storage device. These servers are maintained, operated and managed by a cloud storage service provider, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive and others. This data can include various types of files, such as documents, spreadsheets, photos, videos, music, ebooks and more.

Gaming accounts and virtual goods

They include digital accounts associated with video games, online games, or gaming platforms, and the in-game items or currencies associated with these accounts. A gaming account typically holds a player’s progress in a game, including their scores, achievements, character development and more. These accounts can be associated with individual games or with broader gaming platforms like PlayStation Network, Xbox Live or Steam. Virtual goods are digital items or currencies within a game that players can buy, earn, trade or sell. They might include equipment, costumes, weapons, virtual coins or currencies, properties or other in-game assets.

How can I create a digital estate plan?

hand signing digital signature behind laptop

Creating a digital estate plan is important because it allows you to decide what happens to your digital assets after you die or if you become incapacitated. Without a digital estate plan, these assets may become inaccessible, causing potential loss of financial value, sentimental value or important information. They could also continue to exist unattended, leading to potential privacy risks or other issues.

A good first step is to identify and inventory your digital assets. Start by making a comprehensive list of your digital assets. This could include social media accounts, email accounts, online banking and investment accounts, digital photos and videos, files stored in the cloud, online businesses, domains, blogs, gaming accounts, online subscriptions, digital wallets and any other digital accounts or files that are important to you.

Next, consider what you want to happen to these assets. For each digital asset, decide what you want to happen to it if you pass away, or in an incapacitated guardianship. You might want some assets to be preserved, some to be passed on to specific people, some to be monetized, and some to be shut down or deleted. Be sure to understand the terms of service. Check the terms of service or user agreements for your digital accounts. Some platforms have specific procedures for handling accounts after death, and it’s important to understand these and follow them.

Another key step is to choose a digital executor. This is a person you designate in your will (personal representative) or trust (trustee) to handle your digital assets after your death. This should be someone you trust to carry out your wishes regarding your digital assets. Make sure this person has the necessary skills and is willing to take on this role. You might want to consider discussing your plan with them in advance.

To ensure your digital executor will be able to access your digital assets when needed, you’ll need to provide them with access. This might involve providing them with a list of your digital assets or instructions on how to find them. However, due to privacy laws and terms of service agreements, you should not include account passwords in your will, trust or other estate planning documents. Instead, consider using a password manager with a feature that allows emergency access, or follow each service provider’s procedure for account access.

For many people, it may be helpful to get legal advice to make sure that your digital estate plan is effective and complies with all relevant laws. Digital estate planning can involve complex legal issues, especially when it comes to privacy laws and terms of service agreements.

Once you’ve created your digital estate plan, keep in mind that it’s important to keep your plan and information updated. Your digital assets are likely to change over time, and your plan should keep up with these changes. By creating a digital estate plan, you can provide for a smooth transition of your digital life, protect your assets and personal information, and ensure that your wishes are respected.

What could happen without a digital estate plan?

anonymous person behind laptop stealing information

If you fail to include digital assets in your estate planning, several negative outcomes can occur. Here are some examples of what might happen.

  • Loss of value
    Digital assets, such as domain names, websites, online businesses or cryptocurrencies can hold significant financial value. If no one can access or manage these after your death, they may lose their value or be lost entirely.

  • Loss of sentimental assets
    Digital assets, such as domain names, websites, online businesses or cryptocurrencies can hold significant financial value. If no one can access or manage these after your death, they may lose their value or be lost entirely.

  • Identity theft
    Without proper plans in place, a deceased person’s accounts may remain active, making them a target for identity thieves. This could lead to financial loss and additional stress for grieving family members.

  • Privacy concerns
    Without a clear plan, it may be unclear who should have access to your personal and potentially sensitive information. This can lead to privacy breaches, disputes or awkward situations.

  • Legal disputes
    In the absence of clear instructions, conflicts may arise among heirs over who has the right to access and control certain digital assets.

  • Violation of terms of service
    Some digital platforms’ terms of service do not allow for the transfer of ownership upon death. Without careful planning, trying to access these accounts may lead to them being locked or deleted due to unauthorized access.

  • Failure to fulfill your wishes
    Perhaps the most significant negative outcome is simply that your digital assets will not be managed or disposed of according to your wishes. This could mean that your digital legacy is not preserved as you would have wanted.

  • Extended legal process
    Without clear instructions, loved ones may need to go through a lengthy legal process to gain access to and control of digital assets, causing stress and possibly financial burden.

To prevent these negative outcomes, it is increasingly important to include digital assets as part of comprehensive estate planning.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at legacyassuranceplan.com.

Phone - 844.445.3422
Email - info@legacyassuranceplan.com
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